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A frequent stop on Danube river cruises, Bratislava — Slovakia’s capital and largest city — is blessed with elegant architecture, an enviable location on the river and a postcard-pretty, walkable historic center. Set along the vast Danube between Vienna and Budapest, the picturesque city is packed with so many cultural and historical gems that a visitor could spend a week here and still barely scratch the surface.
But even river cruise passengers who may have just a few hours to explore during a shore excursion will find that this lesser-known European city possesses many charms. Castles, cathedrals, cobblestone lanes, museums, palaces and more are only a gangplank away.
In 1993, four years after the fall of communism, Czechoslovakia split into two independent countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Unlike the well-preserved Czech capital of Prague, many of Bratislava’s historic buildings were destroyed by its communist rulers, leaving much of the city drab and gray. Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004, and today, after an extensive restoration of its Old Town, the city is blossoming, and tourism is on the rise.
Sites of SignificanceOld Town’s photogenic main square, called Hlavne Namestie, and its many attractions are a short, easy walk from the river. The bustling area is packed with colorful buildings in a variety of architectural styles, from gothic to baroque. Built in the 18th century, the neoclassical Primate’s Palace is hard to miss with its pink-and-white exterior. The beautifully restored palace houses portraits of Habsburg royalty, an exquisite collection of rare tapestries and the Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Pressburg between Austria and France was signed in 1805.
Another must-see is the 14th-century Old Town Hall. A cannonball embedded in its tower is a remnant of an 1809 attack on Bratislava by Napoleon Bonaparte, who blasted the city (then known as Pressburg) with cannon fire for several days. Next to the Old Town Hall is a city history museum, where visitors can peruse dozens of artifacts, displays and exhibits.
Not far away is St. Michael’s Street, featuring lively cafes, shops and galleries. It leads to Michael’s Gate and its striking tower, complete with a viewing platform for a bird’s-eye look over the Old Town and its winding pedestrian streets. The gate is part of the city’s ancient fortifications and one of Bratislava’s most famous attractions.
Embracing the Old and NewA relaxed and easygoing city, Bratislava has plentiful cafes, wine bars, coffee shops and restaurants where guests can enjoy traditional dishes such as bryndzove halusky (potato dumplings topped with sheep’s milk cheese), a pint of Slovak beer or a glass of slivovica (plum brandy).
Locals and tourists alike enjoy posing for photos next to several statues scattered around Old Town. Particularly popular is Cumil, a bronze sculpture created in 1997 of a worker playfully peeking out from under a manhole cover. Another Bratislava fixture is Napoleon’s Soldier, a statue of a barefoot man leaning over a bench with his hat pulled over his eyes. Statues of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and Slovak poet Pavol Hviezdoslav are among the highlights of tree-lined Hviezdoslav Square, a popular spot to stroll or linger on a bench and people-watch.
Efforts in recent years to revitalize the riverfront have resulted in new attractions for visitors. The sleek, modern Eurovea complex features shops, restaurants, offices, hotels and a riverside park. Also noteworthy, and just 10 miles south of Bratislava, is Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum. Opened in 2000, it houses a variety of contemporary art exhibitions, a cafe and a bookstore. The museum’s riverside promenade features outdoor exhibits and modern sculptures from European and American artists.
Bratislava, the city where 9-year-old Franz Liszt played his first piano recital, hasn’t yet emerged as a well-known destination in the way its neighbors such as Vienna, just 40 miles to the east, have. But this once-sleepy city still has plenty to offer river cruisers on their journey down the Danube.